Now that I’m about 62 poems in to my revision process of the Exeter Book Riddles, I thought I should finally come out with the rationale behind this translation of these poems, so important to the extant canon and so commonly read and appreciated.

One of the big issues I have with Old English poetry as it has been recorded in manuscript is that there is a paucity of metrical forms seen there. Every type of verse from epic to riddle to psalm are given basically the same meter, the four-beat alliterative, unrhyming, with a rhythmic patterning between stressed and unstressed syllables, first codified by Edouard Sievers in the late nineteenth century (and designated as Sievers Types to this day). This monotonous metrical situation does not appear to be the case for languages surrounding and influencing Old English: Old Norse, Celtic, Latin, and Greek all use various meters and forms for various situations and genres.

So it seems important to me to approximate a unique sound to the Riddles — even though the meter is identical, the sound should not be always the same as Beowulf or anything else. So I felt free to innovate here a sort of projective verse, which breaks up the lines into different lyrical patterns of different size and weight. You can see this throughout, where the blocky cluster of lines in any given edition of the Old English is scattered over a greater area of the page, divided into smaller stanzas and shorter lines in order to emphasize each poem’s various parts and re-distributed the emphasis. The idea is to create a new encounter with the Riddles, that allows a seasoned reader to be reminded in a new way of why they found the poem fascinating in the first place, and to introduce a newcomer to the strangely contemporary power of the Riddles.

The effect is to change the geography of the poem while respecting its language, defamiliarizing the places we know so well so that we might hear them with fresh ears. Old English poetry was written out with economy in mind, not performance or lineation (although poetry in Latin seemed to be at the time), and so some liberties might legitimately be taken with how it looks on the page. The reason for this is that the poetry might have been so commonly heard that only the barest record needed to be made (the marginalized Old English variations of Cædmon’s Hymn seem to indicate this; that they were a trot or an aid to memory), or perhaps even that the recording of the poetry was an effort to control their dissemination into meters and versions that were “officially” recognized by the monastic producers of vernacular literature. (1) (If this is the case, then the redactors might be thought of as filling an analogous position to contemporary Old English metricists, who often argue for what a text “ought to say” based on a prescriptive understanding of meter; as if meter is always invariable, or as if Old English scribes didn’t know their own language very well.)

Let’s give an example for clarity. Riddle #7 (“Swan”) is not long, a nice compact poem when organized into alliterating lines in a standard edition:

Hrægl min swigað      þonne ic hrusan trede
oþþe þa wic buge      oþþe wado drefe.
Hwilum mec ahebbað      ofer hæleþa byht
hyrste mine      ond þeos hea lyft,
ond mec þonne wide      wolcna strengu
ofer folc byreð.      Frætwe mine
swogað hlude      ond swinsiað,
torhte singað,      þonne ic getenge ne beom
flode ond foldan,      ferende gæst.

Here is my translation found on this site:

My clothing quiet when I tread the earth,
or inhabit my lair, or rile the waters.

Sometimes they heave me over human dwellings,
this tackle of mine and the high breeze—

and then the strength of the skies bears me
wide over the people. My bangles then

loudly jangle, jingling—brightly singing,
when I am not resting upon
the flood or the fold—a faring stranger.

My version is no longer, still nine lines long, but the thoughts are distributed differently. Some of this is of course due to the differences in grammar and syntax in Modern English. The first few lines, really a listing of the swan’s activities, are in exactly the same pattern — there’s no need to alter it. But here the thoughts are organized instead into neat couplets, not because they present dialectical possibilities, but because the simplicity of the statement demands a elegant container of the neat and orderly idea. Same goes for lines three and four, except here the fourth line answers the “who are they” question implied by the verb form, the third person plural present indicative “ahebbað”. The third couplet answers then the “and then what” question implied by “hwilum” with the conclusion to its first thought finished in the sixth line, as in the original poem.

The second part of the sixth line introduces the second-to-last idea of the poem, of what occurs when the previously silent swan starts to fly. Contemporary bestiaries noted the musical feathers of the swan in flight, and so the poem invokes a plethora of noise-making verbs to denote its orchestral nature, but in a deeply nonhuman way. These are not musical instruments playing in harmony, but competing, though pleasant sounds. Therefore I use rhyme and consonance to chime my way through a palette of noise (“bangle” “jangle” “jingling” “singing”), repeating the velar nasal as the tonic. This discordia concors is further marked by an interruption in the pattern established, moving from an expected couplet to a final terclet that blurs the noises into the chilly epigram of the riddle’s final image and sound pattern: the f-alliteration that binds together the idea of the swan as a stranger to or spirit hovering over the water and earth (both words in Old English could be spelled “gæst” — though I choose “stranger” to go here, preferring the idea of familiarity and foreignness in the swan as a highly migratory bird (well, used to be migratory in North America…). The idea of this close-reading of my translation is to provide the rationale for the changes I have made, to demonstrate that they are not only defensible but useful to defamiliarizing these highly domesticated poems. Let’s allow them their wildness for a bit, let them romp in the forest from time to time.

This alteration in poetic geography is practiced throughout my translations here — though make no mistake, the idea is not to force each and every poem to sing the same song. Serious riddles move in their own way from the silly ones. Decorum and shock each unfold in their own way, and remind us that pretty much all of the riddles use violation as a fundamental tactic. Ideas are shuffled and redistributed, but there is nothing supplemented or embroidered here. What seems new is actually just re-articulated into a new way to see or say it. One riddle where I found this reorganization particularly effective is in Riddle #44 (“Key”), which spreads the lines out into shorter couplets, spreading the joke over a larger area, so to speak, and driving the eye and mind down the line of its ribald logic. In all cases, the words are not changed — nothing is added or subtracted (and you might be surprised how often difficult passages are simply omitted from modern English translations of Old English poems — for example see Tolkien’s Exodus [1930’s, reprinted 1981] for numerous examples). Even if the sense is tangled or teased in some way, the words are still all there, exerting their influence. That’s part of the revision process I am doing right now: to ensure everything is there.

Additionally, I feel no compunction in protecting a false sense of politeness or modesty imposed on these crazy poems by stiff and stodgy imaginations of the past, which have created trajectories that limit our understanding even today. An example of this can be found in the highly enigmatic Riddle #75-76, which contains the runes “D N L H.” Traditional editors tried very hard to make something decent out this poem (some suggesting that the runes “really” spell “Hælend” [literally “Healer,” though usually translated as “Savior”], a common epithet for Christ, even though that absolutely no sense given the imagery of the verses surrounding it. Williamson (1977) prefers the runes to read “Hland” or “piss,” making it a runic solution of the type found in other riddles (such as #19 and #24) (his note in that edition — he numbers it 73 — is particularly convincing). When one gets over bodily embarrassment, all of the sudden the riddle makes perfect sense: men and women urinate in different ways, so the enigma becomes “what single act is not performed in the same way by every person?” The second chicken riddle (#42) is another that is way too polite, even in Williamson, who glosses its “hæmed-laces,” much like Bosworth-Toller and Clark Hall do, with “matrimony” or even worse with the fastidious Latinate word “coitus.” According to its extant uses, “hæman” often indicates sexual activity that is shameful and possibly unlawful, such as fornication or adultery. So my “game of fucking” is probably more on point, and given the amusing invocation of the animalistic sexual paradise in Chaucer’s much-later Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the down-home observation of chickens as highly sexually active need not be obscured by moral scruple. Chicken fuck their brains out — get over it.

The playful and often very dirty misdirection poems, such as #25 (“Onion”), #45 (“Dough”), #54 (“Butter Churn”), or #63 (“Cup”), probably should be more lurid rather than less, in order to emphasize the power of their feinting (and let the more modest faint at their glorious excesses!). One possibility that suggests itself is that some of these poems’ carefully chosen words are themselves lost double entendres. Is the “suþerne secg” [southern man] in the last line of Riddle #62 (“Poker”) some kind of lost euphemism for a sodomitical act? Given the relentless pounding and thrusting of its imagery “æftanweardne” [from behind], especially directed “on nearo nathwær” [into the nearness, / I know not where—], jangling its n’s against the “nydeþ swiþe” [urges me / urgently], I cannot rule it out — but neither can it be proven for certain.

Moving from riddles that describe fucking to the ways that they themselves engage in genre-fucking (to Gallicize an already-good phrase), another important task here is to critically re-assess the composite generic and formal identity of the poems editorially categorized as “Riddles.” Many of them do indeed play the riddlic game, and it’s obvious that they should be collected together as riddles, but there are several that require re-evaluation. In Thorpe’s 1842 edition and translation of the Codex Exoniensis, he gathered the riddles into several groups based on their apparent connections and proximity: some of these hold together generally, #1-59 and #61-95 of course, but his middle group included #30b (the second version of “Wood”), #60 (“Reed-Pen”), the first part of the Husband’s Message (broken by him into several pieces) and the Ruin, partially because of their enigmatic nature, but also because the final two contain runic inscriptions. That has since been straightened out by better codicological techniques and an improved understanding of the language and what it can do, but it does suggest the continuing possibility that several of the poems categorized as riddles might not in fact be actual riddles. Remember these are editorial conventions and habits — there are no scribal titles in the Exeter Book, and no apparatus that outlines what to expect from its poems.

One riddle that bears re-evaluation is the set of three poems listed as #1-3 in the ASPR edition. These are indeed given scribal indications of three separate items in the manuscript, but they do not read like three separate items. (The reverse happens in the Exeter Book’s Christ 1, 2, & 3, and Guthlac A & B, which despite having scribal divisions worked into the manuscript are nevertheless counted as one item each by Krapp and Dobbie’s ASPR, and a parallel situation occurs with the ASPR’s “Resignation,” which is now thought to be two separate poems [my version needs revision to reflect this]). (2) These three poems seem to have a similar answer (all three deal with earthly phenomena thought to be caused by storms) and all three bear the common tag of the riddle: the direct question to a reader challenging them on some point of identity (in fact, that tag seems to have been the signal for the scribe to add the indicators of a new item, fairly automatically, I might add). But none of the three poems engage in metaphorical misdirection inherent to the genre.

They are colorful and figurative, but all of their vividness points right back to the storm of its “solution.” The riddlic nature of these poems is slanted and incomplete, and a redactor of the book possibly gathered this poem with the other, more certain riddles out of a sense of generic play. Just like with riddle #60, sometimes listed as one of the elegies (by Klinck and Greenfield, among others), the riddles bear in common with the “Poems of Contemplation” a direct, vivid, first-person narrator describing their life experiences, usually by articulating a strong reversal of fortunes (such as the reed by the ocean being turned into a voice-bearing pen). Riddles 1-3 (3) keeps the lively first-person speaker, but does not present its life as a serious reversal, although its career is vividly told. I don’t think the solution is to dismiss this poem as merely a poor example of a riddle (for it is certainly not poor poetry by any stretch), but to think about how the “Song of the Storm” poems (as I call them) challenge the generic integrity of the riddle as it was practiced in the Old English vernacular. Dieter Bitterli (2009) notes a connection between the Storm riddles and the aerial inception of Aldhelm’s collection of Ænigmata (early eighth century?) (4), which may indicate the popularity of the Anglo-Latin collection as a resource for the Exeter Book Riddles, and perhaps a model for its construction. So we have a multilingual redactor assembling a collection of vernacular riddles on the Aldhelmian model who needs a meteorological poem to begin the set in the proper way, and who then conscripts this semi-riddlic poem to fill the need. If this poem were in any other company, perhaps standing alone in its own codex, we might commend its vivid invocations of natural phenomena and its keen attention to detail, both observed and scientifically derived, and categorize it, along with Riddle #15 (“Vixen” or “Badger”), at the very least (5), as a heretofore-unrecognized genre of Old English natural writing, of a highly different sort than the heavily allegorized translations from the Physiologus appearing in the Exeter Book as well. In these two instances (#1-3 and #15), natural explanation is sufficient, and though God is invoked as a mover of the storm’s violence, in neither case is there an overt moral lesson to be taught. Lyric observation is an end to itself, a recognition of and respect for the integrity of worldly things, objects and creatures that fascinate the poetic mind.

[There was a rousing ending to this blog post that got lost when I neglected to hit “Update” after writing it. I finally got back to it, and it became much bigger than I remembered, so I will be posting it in a separate blog post very soon.]


One major challenge in translating the Exeter Book Riddles always arises in how one deals with the manuscript damage that accelerates the closer one gets to the end of the final set of riddles. Williamson’s A Feast of Creatures (1982), itself not a faithful rendering of the riddles, often waxes fanciful in reconstructing these damaged parts on very little textual authority, but it’s alone among modern texts in doing so. It seems that it was more common to “restore” damaged texts by the earliest scholars based only on their intuition of poetic decorum. (6) Here I have avoided making any assumptions on what “must” be there, and just filled in broken sets of legible words separated by ellipses. These have their own ragged loveliness, though riffing on them seems difficult given their incomplete context. If anywhere, I have been most literal at these moments,without a sense to adapt. Others are just left blank, a placeholder stating they are too fragmentary to do anything with (as with #89 and 94).


1)Some of these ideas will form the subject of a book that I am starting on the use of contemporary Hip Hop verse performance as a fresh way to understand the oral composition, memorization, and performance of Old English poetry.

2) There are two other Exeter Books Riddles that have often been edited as separate, due to scribal conventions for marking new items in the manuscript: #68-69 (“Ice”) and #75-76 (solved runically as “Piss”). These two riddles are three lines of text long each (though the latter contains a block of four runes standing alone), and have been broken into a two-line part and a single line before or after. Again, in my translation I preserve the ASPR numbering for ease of reference.

3) I follow the ASPR numbering for clarity, since most scholars use those numbers, though I stand with Trautmann, Williamson, and The Word Exchange by seeing them as one unified poem.

4) Dieter Bitterli, Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2009), 36.

5) As Marijane Osborne pointed out to me, citing her work in a festschrift for George Clark (“Vixen as Hero: Solving Exeter Riddle 15” in The Hero Recovered [Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 2010]).

6) You might remember the “Then to the door Wulfgar went” moment in Beowulf (filled in at the damaged line 390), commonly emended in some editions (though not Klaeber 4).



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